Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Diamond Ruby includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joseph Wallace. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in New York City during the turbulent 1920s, Diamond Ruby chronicles the life of Ruby Thomas—the seventeen-year-old orphan-turned-baseball star— as she searches for ways to keep her two nieces alive after the death of her family and the abandonment by her brother. Ruby is smart, scrappy and stubborn, refusing to let war, disease, starvation or sexism keep her from feeding her nieces and living up to her Mother’s deathbed plea to make something of her life.
By chance, Ruby discovers her ungainly arms are the key to a unique talent: the ability to throw a baseball as hard as any pro ball player. Starting as a Coney Island slideshow attraction and ending up as the star of Brooklyn’s minor league baseball team, Ruby defies expectations and becomes a legend. Her fame comes at a price, however, as she must navigate her way alone through death threats, the Ku Klux Klan, prohibition rum-runners and murderous gamblers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. In a novel whose suspense never ends, Diamond Ruby is the story of a girl who lives through a tumultuous time in America’s history and manages to rise from poverty to fame.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1) “No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse” (192). Ruby learns this lesson early on in the story as one unfortunate event happens after another. Was there a singular event that you see as the pinnacle of Ruby’s suffering? Did the suffering alone lead Ruby to success? Was there a point in the story where it seemed nothing could get worse? Was there a point where everything was okay?
2) How do Amanda and Allie factor into the story? Do you view them as minor characters or as necessary for the integrity of the story? How much or how little do you think Amanda and Allie aided Ruby’s ability to survive? Do you believe the girls were the reason Ruby decided to pursue a career in baseball?
3) Why dose Helen invite Ruby and the girls to live with her? She says it’s because Ruby let Helen “touch [her] beautiful arms” (237). Do you agree? What is the author implying about inner beauty verses outer beauty? About sight verses blindness? Does Ruby’s perception of herself change because of how Helen ‘sees’ her?
4) How does the predominately Brooklyn setting help shape the story? Consider class, race, gender, citizenship and ethnicity in your response.
5) Decisions about right and wrong appear frequently in the novel. Ruby elects not to share the threatening letter from the KKK with Gordon, nor does she tell anyone about her deal with Chase. Think of a few other examples when Ruby must decide between right and wrong. Do you agree with any or all of Ruby’s choices? Do you see any as clearly right or clearly wrong?
6) Do you see Chase as an inherently evil character? Often, he helps Ruby out of difficult situations, though he just as often is the reason for Ruby’s problems in the first place. Was Chase a complex, believable character, or was he purely selfish? Do you think he had genuine concern for Ruby’s wellbeing or not?
7) On page 204, Helen invites Ruby and the girls to the “Safe and Sane Fourth” celebration. Do you see this invitation as a turning point in the novel? Is it a symbol of Ruby and the girls return to safety? To what extent?
8) When Ruby signs with the Typhoons she causes an enormous uproar with New York City media. The newspapers believe it is a women’s right argument. Does Ruby? What is her overarching reason for joining the Typhoons? How does she understand her role on the team?
9) A central theme emerges on page 441 when Ruby, in an inner monologue, muses: “That’s what sports did…they all took you away from your world, your problems, for a few hours.” Describe the role of sports in the novel. Was baseball Ruby’s only escape from reality? What role did sports play in Helen, Jack and Babe Ruth’s realities?
10) Did you find any symbolism in the name Diamond Ruby? Do the words diamond and ruby seem incongruous, especially as a means to describe Ruby? Did Ruby live up to the sparkle and beauty her nickname implied?
11) Diamond Ruby is set amidst significant historical and cultural events. Describe the events you felt were most important to the development of the novel. Does a particular event stand out? Were Ruby to live today, how would her life be different? How much did the spirit of the time influence the outcome of the story?
12) Is Nick a sympathetic character? Examine his shift from a strong, successful journalist to an alcoholic rum-runner. Do you forgive Nick for his actions? Do you think Ruby forgave Nick?
13) Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared that “no sport in America’s great history has occupied a more central place in our nation’s imagination than baseball” (423). He goes on to say that “baseball is far too strenuous a pursuit for women” (424). If baseball is an important part of our collective imagination as Americans, than does Ruby embody the American Dream? By defying Judge Landis, does Ruby become a symbol of freedom?
14) Ruby, Helen, Amanda, and Tania are some of the strongest and most heroic characters in the novel. Who do you see as the most heroic, and why? Does the fact that the author is male change your perspective of the book? What would happen if the author were female?
15) Predict what will happen to Ruby after the novel ends. Do you think she continues to play baseball without interference? What do you predict for Amanda and Allie? For Helen and Paul? For Nick?
Tips for Enhancing Your Book Club
1) Ruby Thomas’s character is inspired by a real girl named Jackie Mitchell from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the 16-year-old pitching phenomenon who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Have your group explore Jackie’s life further by reading Mighty Jackie: The Strike Out Queen by Marissa Moss or Jackie Mitchell, Baseball Player by Kaye Sharbono. Compare and contrast Ruby’s life to Jackie’s, splitting into even teams and debating how similar or different the two girls are.
2) Women and baseball is a popular topic that always sparks controversy. Watch “A League of Their Own” (1992), the documentary “Baseball Girls” (1995) or have everyone read Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball by Jennifer Ring. Discuss with your group why America’s favorite pastime is not deemed appropriate for women, even today. Create a list of women throughout history who have been banned from teams, organizations, jobs or communities because of their gender.
3) Bring Diamond Ruby to life. Pick up a guidebook of Brooklyn and have everyone in your group research a part of Brooklyn mentioned in the story. Examples include Ebbets Field, Coney Island or Brooklyn Heights. Have everyone present their results—whether it is a photo tour of must-see monuments or an interesting historical tidbit. If you are local, consider having your group meet on Coney Island or at a local restaurant Ruby might have frequented.
4) On page 311, Helen tells Ruby she deserves to be happy. Have everyone in your group think of a time they were most happy—a birthday, a wedding, the birth of a child. Share memories, photos and stories.
A Conversation with Joe Wallace
This is your first novel, though you have written several nonfiction books. How did you decide to write Ruby’s story? Did any of your previous books influence you?
My previous nonfiction books were a big influence on Diamond Ruby. Whether I was writing about baseball or science and natural history, I’ve always been fascinated about how women, against great odds, have fought their way into fields traditionally considered to be “men only.” These are real-life stories filled with drama, heartbreak, and (occasionally) triumph, and well worth telling.
Having learned about Jackie Mitchell (the actual girl who struck out Babe Ruth and was then banned from baseball) while researching one of my books, I decided I wanted to write a similar story the way it should have happened. That’s the good thing about fiction—if you want to change the ending, you can.
Describe the journey you took while writing this book. Is writing fiction a different experience from writing nonfiction? Do you prefer one to the other?
Writing fiction is the most exciting, fulfilling, frustrating, and terrifying process I’ve ever been through. I can usually tell when my nonfiction books are going well, but during the first draft of Ruby I was always wondering if I was simply deluding myself. I was so relieved when my first readers liked it!
I enjoy telling fascinating true stories in my nonfiction books. But I fell in love with writing fiction while working on Diamond Ruby—which is why I’m writing a new novel right now. I think I’m hooked.
Describe the research you had to do in order to correctly represent historical characters such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. Were there any interesting stories you came across about your characters that did not make it into the novel?
It’s impossible to read about New York in the 1920s without hearing a whole lot about Babe Ruth. He was larger than life even when he was alive—loud and charming and friendly and difficult all at once. He was up for anything: boxing, playing football, riding in rodeos, posing with kids, as long as it seemed like fun and would keep him in the public eye.
He also collected friends, even though he rarely remembered their names. And children adored him. I really do believe that if Ruby, Allie, and Amanda had existed back then, the Babe would have “adopted” them as he did so many others.
Jack Dempsey was an interesting person, much quieter than Ruth and with a much more complicated relationship with the public. His public persona appears to have been more like I made Ruby’s: not flashy, but determined to win at all costs. Many sportswriters at the time wondered if boxing fans would ever warm up to him. They did eventually embrace him, but not until he lost the championship a few years later.
What made you decide to set this novel in Brooklyn, New York? What effect do you believe the setting has on the book overall? Did you consider any other cities for the setting of Diamond Ruby?
I never doubted that Diamond Ruby would be set in Brooklyn. It’s where I grew up, so I know it well: its sights, smells, even the color of the light there. More importantly, Brooklyn and New York City as a whole were among the most fascinating places on earth to live in the early 1920s.
They were perilous and intoxicating at the same time, places filled with danger and opportunity. Between the opening of the Coney Island Boardwalk and Yankee Stadium, the rise of women’s rights, the flowering of the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition rumrunning, and the kind of active tabloid press that would have loved her—well, where else would Ruby live?
We know Ruby’s character is inspired by Jackie Mitchell from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the girl who struck out Babe Ruth and was consequently banned from baseball along with her entire gender. Why did you decide to write a story based on Jackie’s experiences?
I was so frustrated at the way history cheated Jackie Mitchell when Judge Landis banned her! A photo I found haunted me: This slightly built teenage girl smiling as she posed with Ruth and Lou Gehrig, two of the most famous celebrities of all time, never knowing that her career was about to end. The more I thought about it, the more I decided I wanted to write a novel on a similar theme.
Diamond Ruby isn’t about Jackie Mitchell, though. I purposely made Ruby a fictional character whose life shares little with Jackie’s. My goal was to write a story about a girl who used her talent, smarts, and determination to overcome the people who want to control or destroy her.
Describe the process you went through while creating Ruby’s character. What was it like to write from a female perspective? Was there any additional research involved in capturing Ruby’s voice?
Before starting Diamond Ruby, I had written several short stories from the perspective of young women. I’m not sure why, but I’m very comfortable with that point of view. I haven’t received any complaints (from women or men) that the stories don’t ring true or that I shouldn’t have tried, so I guess I’ll keep at it!
As far as Ruby is concerned, her voice reflects that of many of the women I admired most from that era. In doing my research, I read dozens of journals, autobiographies, magazine articles, and other contemporary writings by women, finding that almost universally the writers were smart, self-aware, and determined to make a difference. I wanted Ruby to share their determination in pursuing her single goal: survival for her nieces and herself.
The novel is set during a turbulent time in American history and touches on many significant historical and cultural events. How did you decide which events to include in the novel? As a historian, do you consider this time period a turning point in American history?
Both in the early sections of the novel (set in the 1910s) and in 1923, when most of it takes place, I had to leave out many fascinating historical events or else the book would have been 800 pages long! (For example, while working at Coney Island, Ruby would likely have met Cary Grant, who was working there, too. Grant was a character in early drafts, but didn’t make the final cut, alas.)
I retained some historical details (such as the great influenza epidemic) because they had such an enormous impact on anyone who lived through those times. Others, such as the Dempsey-Firpo fight and a World Series game at the new Yankee Stadium, were simply terrific fun to write and, I hope, to read.
I wish I considered the 1920s a turning point in American history! Instead, I think it was a brief golden age for women’s rights; I found article after article celebrating the idea that women and men were finally equal and proclaiming that this would never change. No one guessed how much things would backslide just a few years later or that women’s rights wouldn’t get back to where they’d been until the 1960s.
Besides Jackie Mitchell, who else inspired Ruby’s character? Would you consider Ruby more fiction than not? How much or how little is Ruby like her real-life counterpart?
Ruby is definitely fictional. I took only a powerful left arm and a confrontation with Babe Ruth from Jackie Mitchell and invented the rest of the story.
On the other hand, I’m surrounded by people who inspired Ruby, Amanda, and Allie. Much of my own teenage daughter’s personality is reflected in my characters, and I’ve also learned a lot from my niece, from the high-school students I work with as a writing mentor, and from many other young women I’ve met along the way. I’m glad I got to thank many of them in the acknowledgments.
Who is your favorite character in the story and why?
Well, I’m crazy about Ruby, of course. I love how she never stops working toward her goals. She has no pretensions, no inflated sense of self-worth, no outsize ego. She simply loves her nieces and will do whatever it takes to keep them safe. The people who threaten her don’t understand how far love and determination can take you. I’m also very fond of Ruby’s closest friend, Helen. I based Helen on Helen Carr, a real-life diver who went blind following a tragic accident, but who didn’t let her terrible misfortune stop her from living a full life. I found only a couple of stories about the real Helen, but she inspired me.
And I have to confess to a sneaking affection for Chase, the main villain in the story. I like his style and I know that the highlights of his days were the times he got to cross swords with Ruby. (Well, at least until the very end!)
Who are your influences as a writer and historian? What are you reading now? What is next for you?
I love reading histories that bring long-lost times and places to life. Among many, many other authors, Doris Kearns Goodwin, of course, is superb at this, and before her I especially admired Barbara Tuchman. I also find Studs Terkel’s oral histories (Working, The Good War, etc.) invaluable, because they capture the true voices of regular people. On the baseball front, Lawrence Ritter’s masterpiece The Glory of Their Times (also an oral history) and Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract top the list.
In fiction, I read very widely, and I’m especially drawn to mysteries and thrillers. (For example, although Dick Francis’s heroes are always male, in their quiet, underestimated way, they share a lot with Ruby.) I just finished Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow. It’s a portrait of a very different New York City than the one I wrote about, though equally perilous!
Right now I’m working on a follow-up to Diamond Ruby. It takes place in 1926, about three years after the first, because I want to explore the way the years have changed Ruby, Amanda, and Allie. This novel is set in Hollywood, a perfect place for Ruby to bear witness to—and confront—the excitement and dangers of the Roaring Twenties.